Shelter From the Storm

Habitat for Humanity’s Interfaith Event

By Lana Gersten

Published November 13, 2008, issue of November 21, 2008.
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Lisa Nord and Jay Podberesky were hard at work on a recent Sunday, cutting sheetrock and trimming window frames in a bare space in Brooklyn that will one day be a home for a family in need.

IF I HAD A HAMMER: Volunteers from various religious communities took part in the ‘Faith in Action’ weekend to build affordable housing in New York City.
IF I HAD A HAMMER: Volunteers from various religious communities took part in the ‘Faith in Action’ weekend to build affordable housing in New York City.

They could have slept in on that chilly day, but instead they came out to work with other members of their synagogue, Ansche Chesed, as part of Habitat for Humanity’s “Faith in Action” weekend, an event during which the non-profit organization brings members of different religions together to help build affordable housing.

That weekend, volunteers from Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Jain faiths worked together on a 41-unit building complex in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn — once home to a large Jewish community and now characterized as a low-income, predominantly African-American area.

In New York City, Habitat for Humanity works year-round to build simple and affordable housing in all five boroughs. The interfaith weekend, now in its ninth year, allows the organization to celebrate the diversity of New York by bringing religions together at one site. It’s a tradition among Habitat for Humanity affiliates, both in the United States and around the world, to organize an interfaith build.

“We see so much about how religion can divide,” said Josh Lockwood, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in New York City. “A weekend like this shows that there are so many common threads that run through the faiths.”

Although Habitat for Humanity was founded on Christian principles, the non-profit organization has always invited volunteers from all backgrounds. In New York City, where the population reflects a truly global community, the group is even more varied. Rabbi Bob Kaplan of the New York Center for Community and Coalition Building, a division of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, sits on the board.

At 1870 Eastern Parkway, where the crew assembled at 9 a.m., the complex of one-, two- and three-bedroom condominiums is expected to be completed in 2009.

The fact that the weekend fell in the middle of Sukkot — the Jewish holiday that commemorates the 40-year period during which the Israelites wandered the desert and lived in temporary shelters — made it all the more significant for the groups that came from the five synagogues that participated. For them, building shelter seemed to reinforce the central meaning of the holiday.

“We live in a city of grandeur,” said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Ansche Chesed, who spoke at the lunch program while volunteers munched on kosher pizza. “By appreciating the sacredness of what’s small — the small buildings of Sukkot — religious people sensitize our cities in indispensable ways.”

Sukkot may have added a certain poignancy for the Jewish participants, but volunteers from all the faith groups described the event as satisfying and worthwhile.

Ellen Howard Cooper, a member of Ansche Chesed and an employee of the Department of Homeless Services, came because she wanted to give back to the neighborhood where her mother grew up in a poor Jewish family.

For 22-year-old Casey Byron of Alabama, participating that weekend was her way of showing that action speaks louder than words. Although she had worked on construction projects through her church in Alabama, Byron believes that moving to New York City and working with people of different backgrounds has left her more open-minded.

At the lunch meeting, when all the volunteers sat down with one another to debrief, Rosalyn Jolly, who will inhabit one of the apartments next year, was overcome with emotion. “It’s like a gift from God,” she said, as tears rolled down her face, “to help families like myself to be able to own a part of New York.”

As the meeting wrapped up, Noah Rachels, 30, of congregation Rodeph Sholom, said that he sometimes feels overwhelmed by the world around him — with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the genocide in Darfur and a global economic crisis. This event gave him an outlet to achieve something tangible.

“The idea of service and social justice doesn’t need to always be connected to faith,” Rachels said, but “if that’s the catalyst, the ends justify the means.”

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